ground to break to make african voices more main stream. erica wood al jazeera. south africa. much more over on our website. this is techknow a show about innovations that can change lives. the science of fighting a wildfire. we're going to explore the intersection of hardware and humanity but we're doing it in a unique way. this is a show about science by scientists. tonight techknow investigates gold at any cost. we travel deep into the rainforests of peru. these illegal mining operations extend for miles and miles away from the main highway. to uncover a gold rush
that's turning lush jungle into utter devastation. >> high preessure water hoses and blasted out... >> and it's not just the land. people are stepping into mercury. i'm philtorres i'm an entomologist i've conducted extensive research in this rain forest so this story is personal. it really pains me to see this. marita davidison is a biologist specilaizing in ecologyand evolution now she shows us the high tech tools that are exposing what even the eye can't see. >> so where it's blood red that's where the mercury polution is most intense. >> we'll share our findings with lindsay moran she's an ex -cia anaylist. that's our team, everything we've been seeing... it's for this... now let's do some science. hey guys welcome to techknow i'm phil torres
joined by lindsay moran and marita davidson. this upcoming episode is an important one to me it takes place in peru where i've done alot of my research and it is a tale of contrast we will see a rainforest full of new species and then we will see the devastation that humans have done to extract gold. >> and as we know with devastating stories like this, where there is a lot of damage science can play a role here not just in monitoring and discovering what's going on but in trying to help process. >> i think this is a story having looked at some of the images that one image of the devastation pretty much says it all. >> absolutely, this is an important story it's one that is very near and dear to my heart and it starts in the peruvian rainforest. the amazon rainforest for more than 50 million years it's been a cradle of life.
this is what pristine rainforest looks like. lush, untamed, bursting with wildlife. but maybe not for long. because the soil underneath is laced with gold. and the human desire for it can turn all of this... into a toxic wasteland like this. this is la pampa - in the buffer zone of the tambopata national reserve. its part of more than a hundred thousand acres of rainforest in peru that have been decimatd by an illegal gold rush. to investigate - techknow traveled deep into peru - to a region called madre de dios - the mother of god. it's one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet - and the source of 70% of the illicit gold produced each year in peru.
so we're on our flight into the area of peru where goldmining is taking stronghold. if you look out the window you can actually already see signs of the damage. we arrived at puerto maldonado - the region's capitol and a gold mining boom town. an estimated 30 thousand illegal miners work in madre de dios. chances are you might find some of them here - to sell gold or buy equipment. i stopped into one of the shops to look around. it's a place called amazon gold and when you walk in, there's a sign 'compro 'ro' - i buy gold. as i exchanged my money there was a little scale right in front of me that had some gold dust on it from past exchanges. but the sign was removed as soon as our camera was spotted. puerton maldonado is also a place in transition - while many
of its roads are still dirt paths - the new interoceanic highway has opened the area up to the wider world. >> people come from all over the country to work the gold fields here in madre de dios. >> luis fernandez directs the carnegie amazon mercury ecosystem project. he's been studying gold mining's toxic legacy in the amazon since 2000. so now miners have better access to the remote forest, they can get their equipment there, everything's easier because of that highway. >> everything's easier it's essentially part of the perfect storm that is madre de dios. so not only do you have a brand new highway that makes transport easier you have record high gold prices and the preexisting condition of extreme poverty. >> tell me about this illegal gold mining. what is the process? >> we're really on the edge between the amazon and the andes, and erosion over millions of years have worn down the rocks
of the andes which are gold rich, and all that sediment has washed down the rivers. >> next stop - a mining area near la pampa. but that can be dangerous for an outsider. the only way into this spot is on the back of a motor bike. the going is tough - and wet. and makeshift bridges - don't always hold up. these illegal mining operations extend for miles and miles away from the main highway. we've already been on the bikes for half an hour and still got some ways to go. as we get closer - trees give way to something hard to grasp - impossible to put into words.
so where we are should be rainforest. we've got the rain - but the forest is missing. having done so much work in the area - it pains me to see this. the only way to get a handle on the devastation - is how illegal miners work. it starts with clearing the trees. >> the process is one that's very, very primitive. you use high pressure water hoses and blast it out... >> the water disolves the soil removing anything in it that's organic. >> you concentrate it using sluices, which kind of looks like a slide, where you run a slurry of the sediments over carpets which captures the tiny flex of gold that you find in these sediments. >> the process can
turn primary rainforest into this in a matter of days. sabina valdez is president of a small community of miners who work the manuani river nearby. even she was disturbed by the level of destruction other miners had done to this land. but mining does more than strip a forest bare miner's bring in mercury to extract those tiny flecks of gold. >> mercury has a very unique characteristic of binding with gold, forming an amalgam. for a miner, it's almost like magic. >> if there was any question as to whether this area was contaminated with mercury - the answer is right here. the film amazon gold documented miners working with mercury at a mine deep in the rainforest. people are stepping
into mercury? >> people are stepping into that mix of sediment, mercury and water, and stomping on it like you would grapes. because you need all those little pieces of gold to touch the mercury to be able to capture it. >> manuani miner john valdez works with mercury almost every day. miners can also be exposed to mercury vapors. that's because once they extract their amalgam - they have to burn off the mercury to get to the gold. >> so these miners are touching mercury, they're breathing mercury, what are the health effects? >> so, the type of mercury that these miners are exposed to is extremely toxic, especially when you breathe it.
it starts to affect, the liver, kidneys the digestive system and starts to affect the central nervous system. >> today the manuani miners aren't working because of the rain. but john valdez showed me the equipment he used just two days ago to burn mercury off a piece of gold. >> everything we've been seeing it's for this - this is about 3 grams of gold or a hundred dollars, which the average worker can make in about 3 days. that's a lot of money in madre de dios. the average farm worker makes less than $200 a month. that lure of gold, is changing the face of the amazon as jungle is replaced by mining camps like this magnets for crime, under age prostitution and poverty. symbols of gold at any cost. coming up on techknow,
marita davidson meets with a scientist who's hi-tech plane reveals gold mining the jungle hides. >> and suddenly we had a problem to report. >> we wanna hear what you think about these stories, join the conversation by following us on twitter and at aljazeera.com/techknow. >> the new al jazeera america primetime. get the real news you've been looking for. at 7:00, a thorough wrapup of the day's events. then at 8:00, john seigenthaler digs deeper into the stories of the day. and at 9:00, get a global perspective on the news. weeknights, on al jazeera america .
>> in 2013 haunting images of the toll illegal mining had taken on the peruvian amazon - went viral. the video was taken by the carnegie airborne observatory - a high tech plane developed by greg asner from the carnegie institution's department of global ecology. what is it about these mining activities that are so destructive from let's say from an environmental perspective first. >> gold miners not only remove the forest they go down below the soil surface to what would be called the mineral soil. below the biologically active part of the soil so deep in the soil that there isn't a science to tell us that those forests could ever recover. >> the devastation exposed from above was dramatic - but it was also
only part of the story. the aircraft it's outfitted with all sorts of cool technology. how did you use some of that technology to zero in on what was happening in terms of gold mining? >> one of the key technologies aboard the plane is a laser imaging system what it does is we fire laser beams out of the bottom of the plane - the lasers can penetrate all the way to the forest floor. so what we end up doing is imaging the forest in very high fidelity 3d. most of the work that had been done on this gold mining problem was using satellites that see some of the larger mines. we started finding that there was a much larger contribution from thousands of small gold mining operations that weren't known, and suddenly we had a problem to report. >> the rate of gold mining expansion tripled after the 2008 global recession. >> if you are on a typical amazon river the forest seems like it's intact all around you. but, this is that same
river we were on in the boat. when we peel the forest back we reveal the ground which is shown on the right here and what we see here are gold mining operations by and large they're set back from the river's edge so they are being executed clandestinely >> the observatory also has a one-of-a-kind spectrometer which can detect chemicals in the forest below - including mercury. >> our system is unique that it can measure 420 channels of light, all at the same time from the ultraviolet to the visible part of the spectrum that we see in to the infrared and the shortwave infrared it's ability to do that gives us access to key scientific breakthrough, which is the ability to measure chemicals in the environment. because chemicals shine in different wavelengths of the spectrum.
>> this video from the observatory shows one of the large mining areas in the tambopata buffer zone. here's how the spectrometer sees that same mining area. >> so where its blood red, that's where the mercury pollution is most intense, >> so it's basically like a signature contamination >> severe contamination. and these blue areas are forests that have no mercury in them >> and these are also illegal mining activities, these large clear activities >> all of this is illegal. >> while the spectrometer can see mercury contamination from the sky luis fernandez is studying where mercury goes on the ground. >> where else does this mercury end up? >> because the mercury is being dumped into the rivers and lakes, it then gets into the food chain, >> bacteria in the water convert the mercury into something even more toxic - an organic compound called methylmercury - which is easily absorbed in the digestive system. >> mercury, unlike
many other pollutants, magnifies every time it goes from one link in that food chain to the next. so a fish at the top of the food chain in a contaminated region can have mercury levels millions or tens of millions of times higher than the water in which they swim. >> where does that fish end up? >> in many cases it ends up on the dinner plate of people that live hundreds of miles downstream. >> luis fernandez and his team have tested hair samples of more than a thousand people throughout madre de dios. more than 75% had levels above the limits considered safe by the environmental protection agency - some as high as 33 times the limit. but for many miners like john valdez - mercury doesn't seem all that dangerous.
>> over time - mercury impacts the central nervous system. it can cause problems with vision, hearing and memory at high levels it can cause it can cause brain damage to unborn babies. if you talk to miners, and you say hey... - this is a problem, how do they usually respond? >> usually they don't believe us. they don't see the immediate effects, because the type of exposure that you see here is a chronic one. >> coming up the government cracks down on illegal mining but will it work?
the strikes were part of a multi-pronged strategy - according to ernesto raez-luna - a former adviser to peru's ministry of the environment. >> this strategy involved - police operations - and prosecution of the worst offenders and it involved financial intelligence to connect the dots and follow the money and see who are the big bosses. >> the crackdown led to violent clashes between miners and police. it didn't stop illegal mining. they sent in the military thousands of police - what impact did that have? >> it's been a very temporary, fleeting impact. it's so profitable that you can lose half a million dollars in machinery and 2 weeks later you are back in business. it's that profitable. >> the strategy also included a process of legalizing some mining operations outside of protected areas . but only if miners can prove they have proper permits and a
plan to deal with the environmental impact. >> it is impossible for many of them and that's the other part. if people are never going to be able to be formal, you better tell them and start dealing with it. >> techknow also visited peru's ministry of the environment in lima. minister manuel pulgar-vidal defended the government's efforts to combat illegal mining so there's this formalization process. how are the miners responding to this? >> in some way, well. in some other, not so good because sure it is more easy to work outside the rule of law because it's more cheap. that is why we need to have very clear ways to enforce the law >> describe to me the interdictions you crack down in those areas. how was that? how did it go? >> in some way, good. but on the other hand it is very difficult to maintain that kind of intervention because we cannot do it every day so sometimes we pull out these people from the forbidden zone
and in 2 or 3 weeks they are coming back to the same place. >> why can't you do it every day, why can't you come back every 3 weeks. >> because they are also using some ways to avoid these interdictions measures. for example in the tambopata buffer zone area they are working by night. >> la pampa is inside the tambopata buffer zone. it has been the target of more than one military interdiction. yet our cameras caught this mining operation in action - at la pampa - in broad daylight. >> many of the regional governments are allies of this illegal mining. there are a lot of corruption, and they are not monitoring or supervising the fulfillment of the law in these areas. we need to show the people better results. it is not easy. >> they have miserably failed to put in action even small parts of the integral strategy that the government itself approved. at the moment we have a total abandonment of the initiative
i left the ministry over 6 months ago. >> why did you leave the ministry? >> i left the ministry because of a bad turn from government in terms of environmental standards. they approved a new law that weakens the ability of the ministry of the environment to both create protected areas and go after environmental transgressions. i was there to help, not be part of a treason so i left. >> techknow also traveled up river - into the heart of the tambopata national reserve. it's a place so protected that we had to register at two control stations on the way. yet even the park guards seemed overwhelmed. >> we saw miners working the river just a short distance away from the second control station. yuri torres was our guide on this journey into the reserve -
he now makes his living by helping people experience the breathtaking beauty of the rainforest. he knows the forest so well he spots a saddleback tamarin monkey with a baby on its back during our interview but torres used to make his living off the jungle as a gold miner. >> when i worked as a miner, you don't really care about the forest, honestly. >> torres' father and his brothers still make their living - as illegal gold miners. >> and do you talk to them about the dangers, about the environment? >> yes i do it's a big deal. >> do you worry about your father and you brothers as miners? >> yes i do. i worry about everyone in my family... if they don't mine, what are they doing to do? >> its very sad. sad beyond words. we are talking of some of the most biologically diverse forests on earth.
places where you could spend two full hours watching just what's taking place on one branch of one tree and the way the light of the sun shines on different things as time passes by. and in some way you become better because of that i'm convinced that human beings have a right to nature. it makes us stronger. >> so phil you've traveled a lot and done a lot of research in that region but this was the first time that you had seen this and been to these areas. how did it affect you emotionally? >> i've seen it from the plane, anytime i fly into this area and i've always heard about it but to actually see it first hand was unbelievable. it really made me want to do something and let people know how big of an issue this is. >> i have to tell you to
phil just learning about this strikes a very emotional cord for me too because this is my part of the world. not peru, but bolivia, and bolivia is part of the equation here. there is a lot of mining activity in bolivia, gold mining as well but the issues that are going on with the magnitude of the illegal activity in peru has been spilling over into bolivia so there is a lot of gold contraband that's going through the bolivian border and getting exported kind of under the radar which is really, really crazy. it's a huge issue on the market. >> there's about 3 billion dollars worth of gold going through bolivia. huge amount. >> is this similar to or more complicated than say blood diamonds as a consumer what can i do to make sure i am not contributing to the problem if i wear gold jewelry. >> the advantage of the diamond problem is just as drastic on the ground but you can actually track a diamond you can figure out based on it's chemistry where it came from. with gold,
it's a lot more difficult to do because a lot of the gold gets exported it gets all melted together so you can have gold from peru mixed with gold from croatia and all of that could make a necklace. >> phil, that story really opened my eyes so thank you for that. >> yeah, really sobering but important. >> be sure to check us out next time on here techknow as we bring you more stories from the field of science. dive deep into these stories and go behind the scenes at al jazeera.com/techknow follow our expert contributors on twitter, facebook, instagram google plus and more.
this is al jazeera america live from new york city. i'm randall pinkston. tony harris has the night off. the u.s. and afghanistan. leaders hold high-level meetings in washington. what does meeting hold for the 10,000 soldiers still there. and ted cruz becomes the first major candidate to make it official. and battling tuberculosis. efforts underway to finally eradicate this global killer. ♪